In recent posts I discussed college essay cliches, focusing on a set of common essay types defined by former admissions officer and current admissions and college app essay guru Harry Bauld.
I concluded that series of posts with a suggestion for an exercise with one of the so-called cliche essays, The Trip Essay. I asked that my college app readers complete an exercise focused on close description of specific people and places that they encountered on a trip–not on writing an essay or a narrative at this point but simply on extended paragraph descriptions of locations and individuals. Please read my last two posts, at least, before working with the material in this post.
To continue, you now have multiple paragraphs of description. You have not tried to impose some sort of narrative on it, have not drawn some sort of lesson from experience. This is good. Here’s why: didactic writing is often bad writing. If you don’t know what I am referring to, one way to divide writing into categories is to split it into writing which is intended to instruct (didactic) and writing which is intended to describe–or mirror–the world (mimetic).
Most trip essays have two aspects: a description of places, people and events, and an explanation which might be subtitled lessons learned. All kinds of things can go wrong in the trip essay, particularly when the writer moves from a perfectly competent–even evocative and fascinating– description of people and places to a kind of lecture showing the reader why all of this was significant. At this point, The Trip Essay often takes a wrong turn.
I blame the current thrust of education for the problems which arise in The Trip Essay and in essays in general. The fundamental problem is that teaching today is focused on measurable results and so everything taught must have a clear and quantifiable value. In literature, this requires establishing some sort of moral or other lesson which can be tidily summed up in a thesis sentence.
This is not just limited to essays written by students in classrooms. I see this also in the kind of first-person testimonials which have become popular in newspapers, blogs and commentaries. The effect of this can be deadly, as in deadly dull to literature in general and to your college app essay in particular, especially if you are one of those students who needs the essay to distinguish yourself from the mob.
Picture your college app eader groaning as she reaches the end of your essay and finds a moral. Aesop did this pretty well, but after the original, the cliche is born. Cliches are evidence of a lack of awareness and a lack of thought. This is not what you want your college app essay to show about you.
Think about your own experience in dealing with literature. How many good stories have been ruined for you when your teacher insisted that you needed to extract some sort of “life lesson” from your reading. This term, by the way, is of fairly recent origin. I was in college in the 80’s, and I don’t remember hearing this used with any frequency until the late 90’s. The first time I did hear it, I remember thinking, life lessons? What other kind is there? Death lessons?
I filed this phrase along with a boatload of other silly coinings, like preplanning (planning to plan?), and moved on, but since then life lessons has spread throughout the teaching of English like an oil slick, greasing up and drowning perfectly wonderful stories and turning everybody’s reading experience into a finger-wagging lecture. And that’s just the problem. You don’t want to be wagging your finger at your college app essay reader, nor do you want to be boring them (oh, I’m near the end of the essay, here’s the “life lesson” this kid gained by living among poor people in a foreign place).
In addition to the trap of moralizing or lecturing, these essays can also inspire a certain patronizing tone–those poor wretches, eating only beans and flatbread every morning. The locals in your story become mere extras in your personal drama. The worst of these essays actively criticize or mock local culture.
A particularly memorable example of this was written by a student who had gone on a church-sponsored mission to a South American country. This student devoted considerable detail to the local diet, particular the habit the people had of poaching eggs in oil and serving these with beans. Altogether he found this a greasy and disgusting nightmare which would not be consumed by any right-thinking person. He concluded the essay by stating how much he had learned to appreciate his lifestyle in America. Let me give you my lesson here straight: you do not want to write an essay in which wretched, ignorant, poor people teach you to appreciate your logical and superior culture. Which is what this gentleman in the example above did.
Let’s go back to those descriptive paragraphs you wrote. Can you now combine or tie them together into some sort of descriptive piece, an essay which is not focused on you? Can you become like a documentary camera, moving through the world you have sketched, without overt judgment, without talking about yourself beyond the basics, along the lines of I went here because x and found . . ? A full paragraph of evocative description should follow.
The key to success here is to select details which are telling. Describe selectively so that you show us what you learned or what the experience was like without making any overt judgments. You will find this difficult, but this is the first step to writing a Trip Essay which is not the kind of essay that will cause the cliche warning light to start blinking. Even better, you will not come across as The Ugly American Abroad.